Marketing researchers know a lot about advertising strategies that successfully increase sales. This is no less true for pet foods than it is for any other consumer goods. Some of the more obvious approaches to attracting dog owners to a particular brand are advertisements that appeal to our emotional attachment to dogs, capitalize on our desire for expert approval, or that exploit our fascination with the lives of celebrities.
Appeal to Emotion Appeal to Authority Appeal to Celebrity
One of my personal favorites of the “I love celebrities” category is an ingenious brand of Nestle’-Purina’s in which the celebrity to whom the product refers, supposedly a famous chef, does not, um, actually exist…….
The Ad: It’s not just dog food. It’s Chef Michael’s. Crafted with great care, attention to detail and inspiration from our executive chef”
The Disclaimer: In the spirit of full disclosure (and to avoid litigation), the company provides the following response to inquiries about the whereabouts of the personage who is Chef Michael: “Chef Michael is not a real person, but a reflection of the many people inspired to make mealtime special for their dogs”. I dunno. I think I would still like to get the guy’s autograph.
So, pick your poison – there is a dog food advertising campaign out there designed to appeal to just about every dog owner demographic. And, even though each and every one of us will insist that these schemes do not work on us (and that we select a dog food based solely upon its nutrient content, ingredient quality and suitability for our dog, thank you very much), these campaigns do indeed work very well.
Marketing’s Holy Grail: One category of advertising claims that has been shown to work particularly well, increasing human and pet food sales more than any other, are health claims. Because of the cumulative effects of a series of three laws that were passed in the 1990’s, the regulatory oversight of health claims on foods has been drastically curtailed over the last 35 years. Over time, the loss of regulatory oversight over health claims in human foods has led to labels that look like this:
Dog foods quickly followed suit. And pet foods are no different. As it stands today, pet food companies may include general health claims on their labels with no legal obligation to substantiate those claims. In other words, they neither have to prove the claim nor provide any evidence supporting the claim to any regulatory agency. Marketers must simply word their brand name or advertisement carefully enough to prevent the FDA from considering it a drug claim (which are regulated).
The difference between a general health claim (allowed and no proof needed) and a drug claim (not allowed; regulated by FDA) for pet foods turns on just a few words and phrases, as shown in the table below from Dog Food Logic.
Here are a few product examples:
Might these health claims be confusing to pet owners? A recent study asked exactly that question.
The Study: A group of researchers at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine examined the nutrient profiles and ingredients list of 24 brands of dog food that all were marketed for skin and coat health (1). The objective of their study was to identify consistencies (or inconsistencies) among different commercial products making claims of promoting skin and coat health in dogs.
Results: They examined 15 dry (extruded) foods and 9 canned foods, representing 11 different brand names. Here are their results:
- Its all in the name: All 24 products included the terms skin, coat plus a descriptor of skin/coat health in their brand name. They also included additional health-related terms on their labels and on websites. The most commonly used were sensitive, skin sensitivities, digestive sensitivity, digestive health, and limited/unique ingredients.
- Ingredients: If you had thought there would be a handful of specific ingredients that are known to be beneficial to skin and coat, think again. The protein sources in the 24 foods were all over the map and included chicken, fish, egg, venison, beef, pork, duck, lamb, soy, peas, and turkey. A similar cornucopia was found for carbohydrate sources, with rice, potato, wheat, oats, barley, millet, corn, quinoa and tapioca all making an appearance.
- Not so special fatty acids: Thirteen of the 24 foods (54 %) identified fatty acids as nutrients that are important for skin and coat health. While this may be true for certain specific omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids (and their ratios), 10 of the 13 foods did not identify these by name but instead used vague (and meaningless) terms such as “omega fatty acids” or “omega oils”. Less than a third of the foods provided information about the amount of any specific fatty acid in the food. When this information was provided, the range in EPA and DHA (two important omega-3 fatty acids) concentrations overlapped with those found in foods not labeled for skin/coat health.
- More nothin’ special: The essential nutrient content and caloric density (number of calories per cup) of the 24 foods varied enormously and overlapped with other brands that are sold for adult dogs but which are not specifically marketed for skin health. (In other words, not to put too fine a point on it, there was nothing that was consistently special or unique about the nutrient content of these foods. Even omega-3 fatty acid concentrations were all over the map, making the claims of “Source of Omega-3 Fatty Acids” essentially useless to consumers).
Conclusions: The researchers were rather circumspect in their conclusions, stating that the wide variety of ingredients and large range in nutritional value of products marketed for skin and coat health make product selection for owners who are interested in these foods confusing. (Personally, I go further than “confusing”).
Up on My Soapbox: I could be wrong, but I rather doubt that a concerned owner, whose dog is experiencing skin or coat problems and who sees a food that is specifically labeled “Sensitive Skin“, stops and ponders: “Well, the company does not actually state outright that this food cures sensitive skin problems. Nor do they say that they have proven that the food supports healthy skin. Therefore, I know better than to expect this food to do much of anything at all to help my dog”.
I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe this owner is much more likely to be thinking “Oh, look! A food that is designed to help Muffin’s sensitive and itchy skin! I will give it a try because poor Muffin’s skin has been terribly bad lately. I bet this food can help her!”. Ka-ching. Another day, another unregulated and misleading pet food claim, another sale. Poor Muffin.
Take Away for Dog Folks: If your dog is continually or excessively itchy or has skin problems, please make a visit to your veterinarian, not to your local pet supply store. It is important to obtain an accurate diagnosis for skin problems because the majority of these are not related to food. Rather, the most common causes of excessively itchiness in dogs are allergies to environmental allergens such as house dust mites, pollens and molds or fleas. Only after these causes have been eliminated should food be looked at as a potential underlying cause. (Note – The diagnosis of food allergy can only be made through the use of an 8 to 10 week elimination feeding trial, which is a topic for another blog at another time).
(By the way, if you find Chef Michael, get an autograph for me).
Cited Reference: Johnson LN, Heintze CR, Linder DE, Freeman LM. Evaluation of marketing claims, ingredients, and nutrient profiles of over-the-counter diets marketed for skin and coat health of dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2015; 246:1334-1338.